By Michael Vagg, Barwon Health
“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
’The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.”
Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass
My daughter is a huge Katy Perry fan, and thus it came to my attention that the songstress had tweeted about eating acupuncture-treated sushi and loving it. Naturally, my antennae were twitching at the suggestion that there were integrative fishmongers out there. What next, I thought, reiki-treated wagyu? Reflexologized spatchcock? Quinoa harvested by shamans with planetary tuning forks, perhaps?
Now, I’m all for eating healthily, and I’d also like to make it clear that it seems Katy had not gone out of her way to insist that the fish had been needled prior to consumption, but rather that some top Japanese fishmongers like to use acupuncture needles to treat the tuna and salmon to keep them fresh.You can see some video of the practice here.
Far from using the ancient wisdom of acupuncture to balance the qi and bring perfect health and amazing vitality to empowered and health-conscious aquatic consumers of the deep, the needles are used to disconnect the brain of the fish from its spinal cord, effectively letting it continue breathing with brain stem reflexes only to oxygenate the flesh while being transported. The more upmarket way to get fresh fish in Japan is to have it filleted while still alive, such is the value placed on freshness. Clearly this is not a practice that has much appeal for diners not culturally attuned to such cruelty. I’m not totally sure that the needling is much more humane, despite it being given the soothing euphemism of “kaimin katsugyo” which translates as “living fish sleeping soundly”. The fish with needles sticking out of them are packed in seawater-soaked cloths for transport, and are said to expire peacefully during the transport to the restaurant, where chefs and diners swoon at the exquisite flesh.
I’m intrigued though that this use of acupuncture needles for a purpose that clearly has absolutely nothing at all to do with health and wellbeing is even called acupuncture. It illustrates one of the fundamentally irritating and illogical things about acupuncture in general ,ie which form of it is the real acupuncture?
If the underlying premise of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) acupuncture is about balancing yin and yang with a view to manipulating the flow of qi along meridians, then why is there also Japanese acupuncture, which uses shallow needle insertions, Korean acupuncture which concentrates on the hands and auricular acupuncture, which was invented by a Frenchman in 1957? If meridians were real, and acupuncture works in the manner claimed by any of these schools with diametrically opposed opinions, then there must be a winner if they are put to the test. Why hasn’t that happened? Where are the crossover studies from TCM proponents showing head-to-head comparisons with Korean or Japanese techniques? Where are the basic science studies demonstrating in animal models (since animals apparently have meridians as well) why Korean acupuncture has it right, and TCM has been doing it wrong all these years?
Part of the frustration of trying to take acupuncture seriously (which I do, that’s why I’m always annoyed about it) is that the definition and supposed theoretical model cannot be defined in a meaningful way. As Humpty Dumpty points out rather scornfully, ‘acupuncture’ seems to mean whatever you can do with an acupuncture-like intention. As a wonderful example of the genre, this study was an instant classic when it was published in 2009. The authors can’t admit it was a resoundingly negative study. Instead they want more research into the possible mechanisms of ‘toothpick acupuncture’ since it seemed more effective than their best-practice TCM version. Similarly, the popularity of ‘laser acupuncture’ is testament to the fact that complete lack of plausibility and rationale for a treatment is no barrier to widespread use if you get the feels right.
So let’s be clear, zombifying fish to give them a prolonged death is no more acupuncture than using toothpicks, lasers, electrodes, tong ren hammers or needles to restore health. There is no genuinely accepted definition of the term. There is just a bunch of sectarian splitters.
Michael Vagg does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.